Earl Scruggs Calls On 'Friends' For All-Star Album
By Deborah Evans Price for Billboard.com
August 29, 2001
Country music has few, if
any, icons left who can attract musical collaborators as diverse as
Don Henley, Elton John, Melissa Etheridge, Sting, Billy Bob
Thornton, Steve Martin, Travis Tritt, and Johnny Cash. Yet Earl
Scruggs' musical genius has always had universal appeal, and many of
the industry's top names jumped at the chance to be part of the new
MCA Nashville release "Earl Scruggs and Friends," released on Aug.
Produced by Earl's multi-talented
son Randy Scruggs, the album features the elder statesman's
signature banjo, alongside vocal performances by luminaries from the
pop, rock, and country music communities.
"The first track we recorded with Elton John," Randy
says. "When he came in, he actually brought a box set of early
material that Dad had recorded. Elton was a fan of Dad's, and Dad
was a huge fan of Elton's. It set the mood and the stage."
Randy says the song selection process was
"always very open. The important thing to me was that it was
something the guest artist would feel passionate about, and at the
same time, something Dad could dig his teeth into, in terms of
performance on the banjo."
first new recording from Earl in 17 years, the album represents a
musical resurrection for the legendary picker. Plagued by health
problems, he had been inactive in the music community for quite some
time. But hip-replacement and heart-bypass surgeries gave him a new
lease on life. "I'm feeling good and I enjoy performing and
picking," Earl says. "I guess I don't feel my age."
Born in 1924, Earl first rose to
prominence as a member of the late Bill Monroe's famed Bluegrass
Boys. Debuting at the Grand Ole Opry in 1945, Earl earned acclaim
with his unique playing style, but his career really took off when
he and vocalist/guitarist Lester Flatt left Monroe's band in 1948,
forming the famed duo Flatt & Scruggs. The two performed
together until 1969, when Earl formed the Earl Scruggs Revue with
sons Gary, Randy, and Steve.
years, Scruggs' virtuoso picking could be heard in such memorable
pieces as the Beverly Hillbillies TV theme ("The Ballad of Jed
Clampett," which hit No. 44 on The Billboard Hot 100 in 1963 for
Flatt & Scruggs) and in the Faye Dunaway/Warren Beatty film
Bonnie and Clyde, which used Earl's classic "Foggy Mountain
Breakdown" as the theme.
written and recorded it in 1949," recalls Earl's wife of 53 years,
Louise Scruggs, who is also his manager. "Warren Beatty called when
he was producing Bonnie and Clyde and said he found this wonderful
record of Earl's that he thought would work great in the movie. Ends
up it won a Grammy, and Earl got the Millionaire Award [for airplay]
Earl's life has been filled
with such musical highlights. "Earl is a [Country Music] Hall of
Famer, and I'm really glad we are able to record and document this
part of his musical history," says MCA Nashville chairman Bruce
Hinton. "All of us at MCA Nashville feel privileged to be associated
Hinton adds, "There are just
a few people in the entire 20th century that forever changed the
ways an up-and-coming musician would think about how they were
supposed to play their instruments and what their possibilities
might be with it. That's a very unique legacy. You look at people
like Louis Armstrong. No one had thought about playing a trumpet
that way before him, or Chet Atkins on guitar. Earl has certainly
brought that to the banjo -- not to mention he is one of the
architects of bluegrass music."
says his style was born out of necessity: "When I started years ago
with the banjo, it was not much of an asset to the band the way it
was being played. It didn't quite fit in as well as I thought it
could." So he set about to change that, and he adds modestly, "I was
excited that what I had to offer was accepted."
Earl is thankful that his health has improved enough for
him to perform once again. "He went to have his hip replaced, and
when he was in the recovery room, he had a heart attack, and he
literally died," Louise says of the 1996 crisis. "His heart stopped,
and they got him back again. He had six blocked arteries, and he had
With his heart
healed and his back and hip pain gone, Earl says, he feels like a
new man: "It's the first time I've been without pain for several
years. When you get feeling good, you want to pick." And pick he
does on this amazing album, with a musical gift that is
"Earl Scruggs is one of
the true pioneers of American music," insists Don Henley, who first
met Randy in the early '70s. "He is a living example of a strain of
musical authenticity that runs back to the earliest musical
traditions of this country."
often that you can have such a cast of individuals of this caliber
come together and celebrate music," Randy says. "They were there
because of my dad, but what my dad represents is what turned up
within the recording of the music: outstanding and unique
musicianship and artistry. That's what we wanted to capture."
Earl is pleased with the results. "They
are all exciting to me," he says of the 12 cuts. "I'll start
listening to the album, and sometimes I'll play one for two or three
days just over and over, and then I'll move to another one. Later,
I'll come back to that first one. So it's been an exciting trip for
And Earl says he would like to go
out and perform select dates in support of the album: "Music has
been my life. To me it's a prison to think about retiring or just
quitting -- either word is a bad word to me."